What "Checking Your Privilege" Really Means


Privilege is a term used to describe those that “have” in our society, versus those who “have not.” In social justice movements, addressing privilege has been a critical step in attempting to create spaces where marginalized communities feel safe. Essentially, effective social-justice movement attempt to reverse the roles that people play in the everyday power structure of the United States. For example, white men are the most privileged group in the United States at large, so it is important to make sure women of color fill leadership roles in social-justice spaces if they want to. It's common to use the phrase "check your privilege" in social-justice circles if someone is acting in a way that reveals ignorance of or obliviousness to their privilege. Learning to be aware of your privilege is an essential part of becoming an effective ally for social justice. However, the mere act of “confessing” the privilege may not be enough for movements that aim to disrupt systems of power. In fact, by only confessing your privilege, it may reinforce the power you have over others.

If you've ever been a participant in an anti-oppression or diversity-training workshop, the activity “step up, step back” is often played in order to see the privilege in the room. By stepping forward, someone acknowledges their privilege and by stepping back, someone acknowledges the lack of privilege. Examples of questions include, “Step forward if your family had a vehicle growing up” and “Step back if you are not legally allowed to marry.” This game is so effective because it helps folks put their privilege into context and helps us remember to allow others to speak for themselves regarding certain issues. For instance, as a cisgendered female, I certainly do not claim to speak for others about transgender issues.

The problem with this structure, however, is it can make people feel that it is better to be oppressed. It creates a sense of guilt among those who have privilege, and often causes them to try to mitigate feelings of guilt by unrealistically comparing their struggles to those of people who are legitimately oppressed. For example, as a citizen of the United States, I will never know what it is like to be undocumented, even though I come from a family of migrants. To compare my experiences with those of undocumented immigrants might be well-meaning on my part, but it ignores the vast power differential between us.

Another problem with "confessing" your privilege is that doing so does not address how folks should act once that they have checked their privilege. Does this mean a person should have to relinquish their trust fund? No — it means that in their interactions with other people and in the way they perceive their identity, they should be mindful of the power structures that keep marginalized groups such as people of color, women, the LGBT people, and undocumented immigrants out of the decision-making process.

According to Andrea Smith, “we understand ourselves to be self-determining subjects, defining ourselves in opposition to who we are not.” In other words, we create identities in the context of systems of power. In order to move beyond self-improvement and create lasting change in society at large, we need to be able to have a different understanding of ourselves.

This may be a little difficult to process and achieve, considering we still have to live and interact in this world. But the main message from this piece is a simple one, that our goal should be to live our lives with an understanding of En Lak’ Ech: "You are the other me." We should continue to address and acknowledge our privilege but remember it is not enough to simply confess privileges without developing a relationship with one another. By exercising empathy and changing our sense of identity to one that is inclusive, not exclusive, we can open the barriers that have divided communities and created oppressive environments for so many.

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